One morning I dreamt that I died. It was no different than life. The pink, cotton T-shirt I wore to bed that night still covered my astral body, and my bare feet tangled through the crisp, white sheets like primal paws on moss and dew.
Unafraid, I saw the sun shine between the shades and the trees reaching for my window. Although no one was visibly present, I felt an excited crowd gathering and my soul was light with anticipation. Then I awoke, most certain of the immortality I was born to believe.
This lucid dream was a premonitory vision – a gift for a greater purpose. I was soon honorably selected as caregiver to my aunt for the years she suffered dementia and all of the physical maladies that occur when a 90-pound octogenarian doesn’t remember to eat. Strong coffee and country breakfasts temporarily boosted her memory, but Auntie faded into the past more often than not.
Sometimes I became her sister, the beautician who kept the true formula of her particular shade of champagne blond. We split lunch on Wednesdays at the Polish Villa, laughing about work and crying about men. I didn’t see the point in forcing her to remember me. It was disrespectful to a woman who was my feminist hero.
Maria Shriver, upon losing her dad, Sargent Shriver, to Alzheimer’s, lamented with great torment that her father didn’t know her anymore. Only our ego desires the recognition. Her father’s brain malfunctioned, but his heart and soul felt her as deeply as ever.
When pressing for memories we deem important, anguish and fear replace the peace and joy experienced reminiscing with our loved one who has become the patient. Auntie’s happiness was certainly more valuable than my name. Besides, I was collecting family secrets!
Love connects far beyond what science can explain. If we could simply ignore the medical community’s diagnosis of geriatric psychosis, eliminate the continuous demeaning memory tests and embrace the intricate journey our loved ones are taking to the other side, we might arrive more prepared ourselves. With patience and prayer, one day the curtain will lift and, if only for a moment, you will see yourself in their eyes again. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear your name.
In the end, Auntie and I rode in the ambulance together to Buffalo General. I called her that day like I did a dozen times before I arrived and she didn’t answer. She was wearing lipstick and barely conscious, and told me she was ready to go home. When the doctor revived her to a more comfortable stability, he asked, “Geri, who is that next to you?” She answered clearly, “My niece, Khimm, of course.”
I told her how much I loved her and she described the changing vista of the room, the familiar faces to greet her and the angels to guide her because God spoke through Auntie in volumes of love. We had time to say goodbye.
Everything we are is exaggerated when dementia slants our view of the world. The wonderful bits of our personality and the darkness of our soul contrasts day and night in a mental tug of war that is more maddening to the caregiver than to the afflicted, who is blissfully unaware.
To become the practical earthly guide – to keep dignity in check and harm from their hands – is a challenge that can change your life. But there are miracles even in illness, lessons in the passage of time and beauty in our own transitions.